This is the first part of a two-part series on the death of Kim Jong Il and the subsequent to rise to power of Kim Jong Un.
There is something special about the deaths of dictators, when a person with absolute authority over millions is suddenly gone, showing to everyone that he is, or, rather was, just a man. This is what happened in North Korea in 2011.
More than six years have now passed since Kim Jong Il died – one of the most significant moments in North Korea’s recent history.
THE LAST DECEMBER
No one expected Kim Jong Il to die in 2011: many had expected the “Iron-Willed Brilliant Commander” to remain with us for a few more years to promote himself to Generalissimo and nurture Kim Jong Un as his successor – perhaps officially presenting him at the Seventh Congress of the Party.
In short, the “Sun of the 21st Century” had many things left to do, and yet, in December 2011, he died.
December 2011 was a busy month for Kim Jong Il: he was traveling across the country, providing on-the-spot guidance and attending concerts in military units. State media was praising the virtues of his latest project – Computer Numerical Control – its Latin abbreviation, CNC, uncharacteristically appeared in the DPRK media instead of a Korean translation, and for several years the propaganda presented it as some kind of revolutionary innovation. One can only guess who introduced this project to the Great Commander.
No one expected Kim Jong Il to die in 2011
Another important concept that had been recently promoted by the Rodong Sinmun was the idea of the “strong and prosperous nation” (강성대국) the DPRK was to become in 2012. Given the sorry state of the North Korean economy, the international media mocked this promise.
Meanwhile, DPRK state media criticized South Korea, which was at the time debating the Law on Human Rights in North Korea (later approved in 2016). Everything was normal and nothing suggested any major change was about to happen.
The final KCNA report on the Great Commander’s activity came on December 15, when it was reported that he had visited a supermarket in the Kwangbok area. Given the usual lag between the visit and the report, this likely actually happened on December 12 or 13.
However, according to later reports by state media, on December 16, Kim Jong Il signed an order to supply people in Pyongyang with pollack and herring on the occasion of the upcoming New Year.
It should be noted that this order was later fulfilled – when the fish had already begun to rot – as everyone in the leadership was likely too busy with the succession crisis to think about it.
This was the last document Kim Jong Il signed. The following morning he died.
DEATH SHALL HAVE HIS DAY
According to the DPRK’s official sources, Kim Jong Il died at 0830 in the morning on December 17, on his way to an on-the-spot guidance. Although there are multiple cases of North Korea distorting historical dates, this is usually done for aesthetic reasons – such as changing the Party foundation day from October 13 to October 10, since “10.10” looks better – thus the time of Kim’s death looks credible.
0830 suggests that either Kim Jong Il was in critical condition in the morning, or was found dead. After all, by his own confession, he had never slept during the day since when he was a child, so he probably enjoyed a good night’s rest – the last in his 70 years of life.
Kim Jong Il died at 0830 in the morning on December 17
Two days, three hours, and thirty minutes passed between the moment the heart of the beloved and respected Supreme Commander stopped beating and the moment the North Korean state television announced the news.
Where did he die? Kim Jong Il usually used his personal train for the on-the-spot-guidance, being reportedly afraid of flying. Naturally, the train was constantly monitored from satellite by South Korean intelligence, which has said that he likely died at Ryongsong station (룡성역) in northern Pyongyang. This station has a special depot for Kim Jong Il’s train, which can be seen in the photo below:
The problem was that the train was in its depot the whole day, so either Kim Jong Il boarded it and did not go anywhere, or he was not on the train at all.
Another account of his death in 2012 claimed that in the city of Huichon (Jagang province), a dam was under construction. Work began in 2009, and Kim Jong Il gave it a lot of attention, visiting twice in 2009, four times in 2010, and twice more in 2011. Kim had apparently received reports saying that the dam had been poorly constructed, and there had been severe waters leaks there.
The Dear Leader got angry, said “then get it fixed!” and then decided to depart for Huichon immediately to observe the dam. His emotional state led to a heart attack and he died.
Unfortunately, there are no satellite images in the public domain which would allow us to prove this. However, the fact that in March 2012 the dam was already fully operational may suggest that repairing it had been a priority.
|Huichon dam, August 3, 2010 (under construction)||Huichon dam, March 20, 2012 (operational)|
In any case, as of March 2018, the DPRK still has not announced the exact location of Kim Jong Il’s death: it is unlikely it will ever will.
TWO LONGEST DAYS
What followed was likely the toughest of Kim Jong Un’s time in power and the only period of his rule when his authority was not absolute.
Yes, the propaganda inside the country venerated the exploits of the “Young General”. Yes, they even coined the phrase “happiness from the General’s Existence” (대장복), which, together with “happiness from the Commander’s Existence” and “happiness from the Leader’s Existence” was supposed to let the people know that the DPRK was the greatest.
But the young Kim had not yet been hailed as his father’s successor by the Rodong Sinmun. He occupied no senior positions in the country, apart from the position of Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission, which he shared with Ri Yong Ho. The latter, being a Vice-Marshal, even outranked the yet-to-be Supreme Leader, who was just a four-star general.
Judging from similar cases, such as the death of Stalin, it is almost certain that sometime between December 17 and 19 a meeting of the country’s top leadership took place. We do not know who participated – but we can make some suppositions of who did not.
The young Kim had not yet been hailed as his father’s successor by the Rodong Sinmun
As of December 17, the surviving members of the top Party organization – the Politburo Presidium – included Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong Nam, Premier Choe Yong Rim, and Chief of Staff and Vice-Chairman of the Central Military Commission Ri Yong Ho.
Kim Jong Un was not a member of the Presidium, he was not even in the Politburo, and he was merely an ordinary member of the Central Committee.
There are reasonable grounds to believe that out of the three members of Presidium one, or maybe even two, were not informed about the event immediately.
On December 17, according to the Rodong Sinmun’s December 18 issue, Premier Choe Yong Rim was visiting Sukchon county and the picture in the newspaper portrayed the Premier there in plain sunlight. Given that the sunrise on North Korea on December 17, 2011 took place at 0749 and Kim Jong Il died at 8.30, one can surmise that at the time of the Great Commander’s demise, the Premier was in Sukchon and had not been informed about the impending crisis.
It is likely that Kim Yong Nam also did not learn about the crisis in time. December 18’s Rodong Sinmun featured his telegram to Deputy Emir of Qatar Abdullah bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, sent on December 17. The telegram was a pure formality, congratulating the Deputy Emir on Qatari National Day, celebrated on December 18.
The fact that Kim took time to send it suggests that he was not busy dealing with the crisis – his subordinates would be very unlikely to send a telegram without his approval, especially since relations with Doha were quite important to Pyongyang (there were thousands of the DPRK laborers working there).
What followed was likely the toughest of Kim Jong Un’s time in power
Thus, it is entirely possible that two of three members of the Standing Committee were not informed about Kim Jong Il’s death in time, and that decisions which defined the fate of the nation may have been made without them.
So what was decided on these days? Judging by later developments, at least this:
- Kim Jong Un will be the successor, inheriting the absolute authority of his father.
- The funeral committee of 232 members (the funeral committee of Kim Il Sung had 273 members). Kim Jong Un would lead it, Kim Yong Nam would be the second, Choe Yong Rim is the third, and Ri Yong Ho is the fourth.
- From 1 am on December 18, all border guards were put on high alert and all patrols are to be doubled.
- The announcement of Kim Jong Il’s death would be made on Monday, December 19, at noon.
- On December 19, KCTV was to start their broadcast at 9 am, not at 3 pm like they usually do on weekdays. They would announce five times that a special broadcast would take place at noon.
- The announcement would be made by famous anchor Ri Chung Hee (리춘히), who had not appeared on state television for a long time. It would be pre-recorded and a sorrowful music played by a military orchestra be displayed afterwards.
All this would necessitate at least one meeting of the top leadership and at least one order being issued. Judging by the information above, it is likely that the order came on December 17 and that Kim Jong Un and Ri Yong Ho were present at the meeting while Kim Yong Nam and Choe Yong Rim were not.
If this was indeed the case, we may summarize that immediately after his supreme authority was confirmed, Kim Jong Il moved Ri Yong Ho to the last position of all the members of the Presidium in the funeral Committee in order to neutralize him, and, given the sorry fate Ri met in 2012, this seem to be a logical assessment.
BEFORE THE ANNOUNCEMENT
The only thing significant about Monday, December 19, 2011 was that is was the birthday of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Born in 1941, the President was turning 70. When he woke up at that, he probably still did not know what kind of present Pyongyang had prepared for him.
It seems that the secret was safe. Apart from the inner circle in Pyongyang, no one knew what had happened.
South Korean media started their day as usual. They were reports of a recent typhoon in the Philippines, reports about the arrest of Mr. Pak, an official of the Blue House suspected of organizing a DDOS attack on the homepage of the Central Electoral Commission during recent elections, and, interestingly – news about North Korea.
Both Pyongyang and Washington had come to an agreement: food assistance in exchange for North Korea terminating its uranium enrichment program. Newspapers reported on Kim Jong Il’s visit to the supermarket, saying that he was implementing Chinese-style reforms. KBS, the main TV channel, reported on North Korean escapees in Laos.
That day, KCTV started its broadcast earlier, as had been prescribed. This is how the program unfolded:
09:12 A documentary “The Great Leader respected comrade Kim Jong Il has conducted on the spot guidance at various places. October 3-17, Juche 100” (the film was already shown on December 17)
10:00 A female voice anchor makes an announcement: “Dear viewers. Dear viewers. There will be a special message broadcasted at noon. I repeat: There will be a special message broadcasted at noon”. (repeated once)
10:01 The unforgettable day of veneration for the Songun Commander – Kim Pyong Mu, Ph.D. Senior Grade, candidate academician, professor, former general of the KPA
10:14 A song which showed the truth of eternal victory, and the mission of the gun – “Let us defend the Party Center at the cost of our lives”
10:23 A female voice anchor reiterated the announcement of the special message to be broadcast at noon (“There will be a special message broadcasted at noon by television and radio”)
10:30 A female voice anchor reiterated the announcement of the special message to be broadcast at noon
10:39 The immortal cenotaphs to eliminate the course of history – The image of the Glorious Commander, who descended from heavens above and imbued by the spirit of the Paektu mountain, Part II
11:00 A female voice anchor reiterated the announcement of the special message to be broadcast at noon
11:13 A treasure box hailing the Great Men – a visit to the Showroom of International Friendship, Part CCLVII
11:20 A female voice anchor reiterated the announcement of the special message to be broadcast at noon
11:25 A film “A parent of the gun family – family of Kil Kum Sok, a former KPA general”
11:40 A female voice anchor reiterated the announcement of the special message to be broadcast at noon
Notably, there was no news broadcast at 10 am, which is a standard practice for full-day announcements.
Speculation began to grow. Daily NK reminded its readers that the last time this happened was during the Third Party Conference in September 2010, when Kim Jong Il was once again elected General Secretary.
Choe Po-son (최보선), a representative of the Ministry of Unification, said “such a rare thing happens when the North announces something important to the internal audience, or there are some special news related to the NDC Chairman or something ranging from the Six-Party Talks to the DPRK nuclear problem”.
In other words, he went through all possible scenarios, indirectly confessing that the Ministry had no idea on what was going on. When asked about the potential for a dialogue between Pyongyang and Washington, Choe said it would be wise to wait until after the announcement.
Meanwhile, at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the University leadership asked the students and teachers to be calm. Maybe they had learned something, but more likely, they saw the announcement and decided to play it safe.
Noon approached, and with it the end of the seventeen-year-long era of Kim Jong Il. It was quite symbolic that it was ending with state television playing a song dedicated to the “Party Center” – his moniker from the 1970s when his rise to power was still hidden from foreign audiences.
DARKNESS AT NOON
December 19, midday. After a second of a red screen, Ri Chun Hee appeared, wearing a black dress.
A special message announced at noon, and an anchor in mourning dress – many probably guessed at this very second what it was about.
A solemn pause lasted for five more seconds and, after it, Ri began to read the announcement:
A Proclamation to all Party members, all commanders and soldiers of the People’s Army and all the people. All of our Party members, all commanders and soldiers of the People’s Army and all the people! The Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea and the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the National Defence Commision of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Cabinet of Ministers with the greatest sorrow announce that the General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Chairman of the National Defence Commision of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army the Great Leader respected comrade Kim Jong Il passed away at eight hours thirty minutes on the December seventeenth of the one hundredth year of the Juche era (two thousand and eleven) on his way to on-the-spot guidance.
Ten more minutes were spent extolling the virtues of the Great Commander. Born in a “partisan family” (for some reason, the DPRK nearly always uses this sobriquet or “in the revolutionary family” instead of “son of Kim Il Sung”), he dedicated his whole life to the people.
The “closest comrade” and “the most loyal comrade-in-arms” of the Great Leader (once again, Kim Il Sung was not called Kim Jong Il’s father) had passed away – and this was a tragedy, announced Ri Chung Hee.
On the twelfth minute, she announced the most important phrase of the entire message. With a sudden change of voice from a sorrow to a joyful one, Ri said: “today respected comrade Kim Jong Un, the great successor of the great deed of the Juche revolution and the outstanding leader of our Party, army, and the people, stands at the head of our revolution.”
The era of Kim Jong Un had begun.
To be continued in part two.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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